Saturday, February 23, 2019     Volume: 19, Issue: 51

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on July 11th, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 19 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 19

Santa Maria City Council puts increased sales tax on November ballot

By Kasey Bubnash

If Santa Marians want to improve and maintain the city's public safety services, it's going to cost. 

The Santa Maria City Council voted unanimously on July 3 to put Measure U2018, the Public Safety and Essential Services Measure, on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. The measure, according to a city staff report, would extend the existing sales tax approved by voters in 2012 and increase it from .25 to 1 percent. 

If passed, the increased tax is expected to generate about $18 million annually, all of which city officials say would go toward maintaining local public safety and "quality of life" services.

The current .25 percent tax, Measure U2012, produces nearly $5 million in local public safety funding each year, City Manager Jason Stilwell said at the July 3 City Council meeting. The measure funds 27 public safety positions, Stilwell said, along with five other city positions, and has helped the city deter gang violence, lower crime rates, and improve emergency response times. 

The current rate is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2021, and Stilwell said Measure U2018 would both expand that deadline and increase funding. 

Without a sunset provision, he said the spiked sales tax would stay in place indefinitely unless future community members choose to vote it out. The ballot measure would also raise local sales taxes, but Stilwell said Santa Maria's taxes would still be lower than many areas in California, and the resulting funds could not be taken by the state"an issue many community and council members discussed on July 3. 

Measure U2018, which would raise an existing Santa Maria sales tax and extend its deadline indefinitely, will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Most of the money produced by the ballot measure would go toward public safety efforts.

The state, Stilwell said, has taken $55 million from the city throughout the last 25 years through property taxes, eliminating the redevelopment authority, and "skimming" property tax administration fees. 

"Fifty-five million dollars over 25 years is a lot of money for the state to take from us," Mayor Alice Patino said at the meeting, "and practically every month the state comes down with something else they're taking from us. And I know the Chamber had a slogan, 'Shop local.' Well not just shop local, but tax local."

The council members–and several residents–wholeheartedly agreed. 

Santa Maria Police Department Sgt. Daniel Rios said at the meeting that Measure U2012 helped the department hire more detectives and officers, improve its response times, and better protect the community at large. Measure U2018, Rios said, would help the department maintain and improve upon that work. 

Kevin Platt, assistant superintendent of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, said Measure U funding entirely supports three of the district's school resource officers, and Santa Maria resident Helen Galvan said that some of the funds have also gone toward the Santa Maria Public Library, which is now able to run eight additional hours each week. 

Leonard Champion, chief of the Santa Maria Fire Department, said the current Measure U sales tax funds a fifth of the department's services, and an extension would enable the department to continue staffing its fifth station, add another response unit to the downtown area, and upgrade its fleet. 

"If we lose Measure U there are some challenges before that," Champion said, "before us, and the city, and the community."

Not everyone at the meeting spoke in favor of the sales tax. 

Santa Maria resident Gale McNeeley called Measure U "regressive," and said it would unfairly tax even the lowest-income individuals in town indefinitely. McNeeley said the tax would do nothing to address many of the city's long-ignored issues–including its lack of adequate soccer fields and cultural and civic centers–and that the ballot measure was "sold" to the community through fearmongering.

McNeeley also said a pair of city surveys, lengthy questionnaires used to assess the feasibility of getting a Measure U extension and increase passed, were skewed to show community support for public safety services. 

In the surveys–one of which was an 18-minute phone interview that a private polling company conducted with 460 Santa Maria residents, and the other a written questionnaire that more than 800 residents completed–locals were asked to share what they thought the city needed more of.

In both surveys, city Public Information Officer Mark van de Kamp said residents listed gang suppression and crime prevention efforts, prompt 911 response times, fully staffed fire stations, and the continuation of at-risk youth programs as their top priorities. 

The results suggest that community members highly support the efforts Measure U funds, which could seem suspicious, but Councilmember Jack Boysen said the city wouldn't want inaccurate results. 

"Obviously when this goes to a vote we don't want a polling company telling us we can get a 65 percent approval rating then find out we only get 40 percent of the votes," Boysen told the Sun. "We wanted an honest opinion from the public."

And Boysen said public safety really is, and should be, the city's No. 1 priority, and with more and more of the city's budget going toward its mounting structural deficit, he said public safety services are going to need as much help as they can get. 

"To be honest with you, we would have to cut services severely just to maintain a very basic level of public safety," Boysen said. "We could live without parks, we could live without a library, but we can't live without police, we can't live without the fire department."

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